German Wine Festivals - and Tastings
While Germans are famous for their beer consumption, wine is very much part of their culture too and wine festivals are the high point of this way of life. Every year in Germany there will be over 1,000 wine festivals during the warmer months (March to October). Of course, you can go to an individual wine producer for a tasting as well, or to one of the informal wine taverns called Strausswirtschaften. Here we describe all of these ways to taste and buy wine so that you know what to expect.
German wine festivals
German Wine Festivals, whether in a small village or a city, will typically involve a combination of the following:
- drinking the local wine
- food, from pork and pretzels to sweet dumplings and candyfloss
- live music
- fairground attractions
Festivals are generally well planned and will be held at the same time every year in a particular place. Normally they last for two or three days over a weekend, but the world's largest, in Bad Durkheim, goes on for the best part of a fortnight. In fact, the "Durkheimer Wurstmarkt", which is about 600 years old, is so large that they have to re-organise schools and traffic around it, the Chancellor attends to make a speech, there could be 150 hams roasting at any one time and each day starts at 9am and finishes at 2am. Now that's what I call a party! But smaller festivals generally start on Friday afternoon, carry on through Saturday afternoon and evening, have a church service on Sunday morning and finish off Sunday night with a firework show.
Festivals have the objective of selling a lot of wine, but also the winemakers and associated businesses want to celebrate, whether it is the flowering of the vines, the grape harvest, the new wine or something entirely different such as the walnut harvest. The support of local businesses is important and so not only will the local wineries take part but they will get the bread from the local baker, the local bars and restaurants will take stalls or offer their usual services. The music may be provided by the village jazz band, an oompah band, a bunch of ageing rockers who have day jobs in the nearby town or the kids' latest grunge band, often all the above over the course of a weekend festival.
Security will be sensible to ensure the young do not hurt themselves, but Germans seem know how to let people have a good time without getting violent. Watch out for any crush points though. You normally gain entry to the arena (if they have an arena) or get the first wine by handing over a few Euros for a glass (hopefully engraved with the festival's name) and then you can fill your glass with the wines of your choice for a few Euros a time as you go from stall to stall. Volumes vary from 0.1 litre to an amazing 0.25 litres (yes, a third of a bottle) and, on occasion, 0.5 litres (2/3 of a bottle). Pacing yourself is a good idea, as is sharing glasses with your partner.
There is usually somewhere to sit on benches at trestle tables, and food can generally be ordered here. Or you can buy a snack such as a hot dog or a slice of roast pork in a roll and eat as you stroll around. As the evening progresses the carnival rides seem to get faster but the crowd shows no aggression and the whole thing may well finish with a firework show or a sing-along. You can give your glass back at any stall and get your deposit returned, or you can keep it as a memento.
Sunday mornings have a special air as they will normally start with a church service and then a visit to the vineyard to bless the grapes, hillside, equipment etc, but once lunch is over it is back to the party. At some point a local girl will be crowned wine queen for the next year. In these egalitarian times, wine kings are sometimes encountered too. These are not beauty contests; the wine queen needs to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the local wines and vintages, although coming from a family that has been growing grapes for several generations won't hurt her chances.
Wine tasting in Germany
Most producers will receive visitors by appointment on Mondays to Fridays (and sometimes Saturdays) at any time of year other than the harvest (September/October in Germany, but it could be as late as January for ice wine). Or you may see a sign that says "Weinprobe", which means you can just call in at any reasonable time of day. You can ask at a Tourist Information office for a list of the local producers who open their doors, and they will ring to make an appointment for you if you ask nicely.
If you are at a festival and you decide you want to buy some of the local wine to take home, try and book an appointment for the coming morning (say after 10am) at the producers you liked best. Given how busy they will be during the festival it is definitely worth booking rather than just turning up, but don't be surprised if the winemaker's wife who serves you has something of a morning-after-the-night-before look about her. Make sure you know which wines you have already tasted and have decided how many bottles of each you want to buy. The wines sold in tasting quantities at the festival will have been the producers' cheaper wines and you may want to taste their older or more complicated wines prior to buying, but if you are just planning to buy rather than taste then do it and let them get on with their busy lives. If you want to taste the wines read on.
Types of wine producer
Within Germany's 11 wine regions there are many wineries which make "farm gate" sales. A lot of German wine, including some very good wine, is made virtually on a hobby basis by people who have other jobs and mainly tend their vineyards at the weekends, during the quieter periods of the year at least. Such people are often very dependent on direct sales, but they don't have a lot of spare time and you need to respect this and be businesslike in your dealings with them, ie don't spend an hour tasting through every wine on their list. unless you know you are going to be buying a fair quantity. It is quite in order to buy as few as 6 bottles from such a place, but 12 would be better and they will obviously be happy to sell you much more. If you really don't like the wine then there is no reason why you should buy any, but it would be polite to buy at least a bottle (being on a bicycle is a good excuse) and to bring the tasting to an end as soon as you realise their wines are not to your taste.
The more commercial wineries and the co-operatives (which make wine on behalf of smaller producers who don't have the volume of grapes, or the inclination, to do it themselves) tend to be better geared up to dealing with visitors. You will probably find a proper tasting room (white surfaces, spittoons, good lighting and a sink) and a shop with all the wines on display, but you may have to make an appointment. It's usually possible just to walk into a co-op though, and they will have a wide variety of wines available so are a good choice for your first wine-tasting experience. A charge is often levied, which is no bad thing because then you need not feel under any obligation to buy.
You need to understand the wine producer's agenda. Normally the winery is trying to give out mainly cheaper wine for the tasting and to sell such every-day drinking wines as well as more expensive ones. Hence they have to judge if you are "worth" the expensive wine before bringing it out for you to try. They can get around this struggle by charging for the tasting, but even then they are not going to pour the €50 a half-bottle ice wines and Trockenbeerenausleses for someone who has just walked in off the street. If you really want to try such a wine and there are a few of you, you could always ask to buy a bottle and taste it there, then you will know whether it is worth buying a few more to take home.
You, on the other hand, want to find a good wine or two to buy (if you can carry the bottles away), or maybe you just want to find out what is available locally and experience the fun of comparing different wines against each other. On a cycling holiday, transporting the wine is obviously going to be a problem. You could have it shipped back to the UK or Ireland, or indeed anywhere else in the world, but the delivery cost and duty will almost certainly mean it is cheaper to buy it once you get home, assuming the producer has suppliers in your home country. But if you have driven to the area, you can arrange to collect your order at the end of your holiday, or they may be prepared to deliver to your final night's hotel. Just make sure you know when the winery's opening times are if you are going back in the car to collect, particularly if you pay for the wine when you order it.
At the tasting
To give you an idea what to expect, having walked in or rung the doorbell you should say "Guten Tag" ("gooten tark") to anyone/everyone you see. The Germans are quite formal in their business dealings and it doesn't hurt to err on the side of over-greeting. In a co-op, walk over to the counter where there are probably a few printed wine lists and study one of them while you get a feel for the place. In a smaller winery, simply say, "Wir möchten weinproben."("veer merchten vine-proben", with the "ch" pronounced as in the Scottish "loch") and you will be seated at a table and probably offered a list to choose from, or else the wines will just start to come. There are a few basic rules to observe, whenever and wherever you taste wines:
- whites before reds (not too much of a problem in Germany, which produces few reds)
- dry before sweet
- sparkling (generally) before still, unless it's sweet
- young before old
- simple before complex (which generally means cheap before expensive and lesser varieties such as Muller Thurgau and Silvaner before "noble" grapes like Riesling)
- look, smell, taste, in that order
- most non-professional tasters swallow unless they are driving, but a winery will always manage to find a spittoon or some other suitable vessel if you indicate that you want one
- keep a note of the wines you like by marking a list (they will usually give you a copy), it's easy to lose track
- tip out your glass into the sink or spittoon, if there is any wine left in it, before asking for the next one to be poured
- somewhere between 4 and 6 wines is a reasonable number to expect
- most places will just pour a tiny quantity, say 10-15ml, especially of the more expensive wines
- if you are only interested in a certain type of wine, such as Sekt (German sparkling wine), dessert wine or Riesling, say so at the outset
- assuming you share a language, tell the person giving you the tasting which wines you like so that he/she can give you more of that style
Another thing to bear in mind is that producers of still wine in Germany seldom make Sekt and vice versa. If you want to taste Sekt you will need to find a Sekt producer or else go to a co-op.
A Strausswirtschaft (plural: -en) is an un-licensed but legal bar. They provide simple food and wine and are run by wine producers with a strong focus on local produce. You can spot them by the branches of Broom stuck onto the front of the building, usually above the door. If you don't see any, ask at a Tourist Information office. They are limited to providing a maximum of 40 seats and only open for 4 months in the year. Most will open only at the weekend, either for lunch or dinner but probably not both on the same day. At lunchtime, and on summer evenings, the seating could well be outside.
There may be a menu chalked on a board, or it may be a case of just taking whatever they have on offer. You can be confident that the food will go well with the wines that are being served. Usually you will find yourself sitting on benches with the locals and it's a great way of meeting people if you can find a language in common.
While Strausswirtschaften seldom offer wine tastings, you get the opportunity to drink local wines from small producers by the glass. You often get a chance to talk to the wine-maker or another family member who is serving. If you like a wine you have drunk, you should be able to buy a bottle (or a case) to take away.